A few months ago, before the drama of Syrian refugees pouring into Europe came to dominate the news, our attention was riveted on the standoff between Greece and the European Union, and especially between Greece and Germany, the economic juggernaut of the E.U. With the shift in media coverage to the refugees, you may have gotten the impression that the rift between Greece and the E.U. has been resolved and the story is over.
If you think that, you’re in for a big surprise. For, as the Greek people continue to overspend, overborrow, and live beyond their means, this problem is going to return, worse than ever. It’s just a matter of time—probably a matter of months. But this issue is important to Americans as well as to Europeans, because it’s symbolic of a much bigger problem—one that we all share, and one with moral dimensions. So please stay with me on this.
While we wait for the next shoe to drop with Greece, here are some questions to ponder. Will Germany and the other wealthier nations of the E.U. keep throwing good money after bad, so to speak, by covering the Greek debt unto infinity? If not, will the Greeks split from the E.U. and go their own way, perhaps forging regrettable alliances with Russia and dangerous Middle Eastern powers?
From the Moralnomics standpoint, whether the Greeks remain in the E.U. is not the most important issue. Ultimately, it comes down to the core values of the people and the leaders of the E.U.—moral values as to who they should be, how they should interact with one another, how their children should be raised, and the role that government should play in their lives.
The universal morality of Moralnomics is all about merging self-interest and other-directedness at ever-higher planes. Moralnomics is built on the twin pillars of (1) personal growth, so that we aspire to become all that we can be, and (2) empathic development, so that we connect with other persons and genuinely care about them and about their own growth.
From there, we come to see how bottom-up economic freedom unleashes us to develop our differing talents so that we are of greater value to one another, and how that freedom also allows us to give greater rewards to those who please us better. Our freedom to bestow greater rewards for greater benefits encourages us to make our best better, and it is the key to economic growth and widespread prosperity—prosperity enjoyed by those societies whose peoples embrace morality and freedom for themselves and their children.
If the people of a nation want to embrace universal morality and economic freedom, and want to ensure that their government does not stand in their way, they must have bottom-up political freedom to control their government—lest it become the greatest obstacle to their economic growth.
That brings us back to the European Union.
The E.U. is not like the United States. Its member nations have not agreed to come together and form a single nation, subject to a single constitution that each nation has ratified on its own people’s behalf. The E.U. represents a halfway commitment—less than a truly unified nation, but more than a mere open trade agreement.
The real problem here is the erosion of personal freedom, personal responsibility, and personal accountability, as the individuals in a society become more disconnected from their government. This disconnection becomes ever more evident as government’s size and reach grow, while the people’s ability to control the government shifts away from them. Government becomes less bottom-up—that is, it becomes less of, by, and for the people—and instead becomes more top-down—that is, the government exists more to serve the interests of those who run it and staff it.
In significant ways, the E.U. functions much as a top-down regime. Participating nations, in agreeing to toss out their own currencies in favor of the euro, have given up their sovereignty over their own monetary policy. When that happens, a nation no longer can decide for its people how much money to print and circulate.
Okay, but so what? Apart from not controlling their euros, member nations are otherwise free to do as their people wish, right? Not really.
When a nation surrenders its power over its monetary policy, eventually it risks surrendering its power over its fiscal policy—that is, over its own budgetary processes. A member nation that has run out of money is no longer free to decide how to spend money, and as a practical matter its sovereignty as a nation is severely limited, if not effectively ended. As a consequence, that nation is no longer able to act in accordance with the will of its people, whose sovereignty over themselves as individuals is likewise severely limited, if not effectively ended.
The misery that comes from a disconnection between individuals at the bottom and a far-removed government at the top can be overwhelming. History teaches us that such governments tend to entrench themselves and their authority, at the cost of liberty for the people. We’re seeing similar problems in the United States, as our federal government increases its control over our people, our businesses, and our constituent states, and our federal reserve bank dictates monetary policy that it’s making up on the run. I’ll circle back to America’s problems shortly.
For the moment, the point is this. If people are going to be bound together, there must be some force that binds them. Either it will be a top-down force, binding them against their will—in effect making them prisoners—or it will be a bottom-up force. By its very nature, a bottom-up nation is populated by free persons who choose to become bound together with other persons, allowing them to live as citizens who together control their government.
In the case of free persons, what leads them to bind themselves to other free persons? The answer should be more than that they are in geographical proximity or that they have jointly revolted against a common foe. They should share a commitment to commonly held core moral values.
This is the real problem faced by the E.U. Its various member nations’ peoples do not share core moral values. They have very different notions about what individual freedom means; how much personal responsibility individuals should take; how hard people should have to work to achieve the living standards they want; and how much government should intrude by way of taxation, regulation, spending, and borrowing.
This is the age-old problem we as children first heard about in a fable from Aesop starring a grasshopper and an ant: namely, the great chasm that divides hard-working individuals, who save and invest for the future, from individuals who want to lead a carefree existence secured by their harder-working neighbors’ wealth.
Over the centuries, the issue has been spun in every direction. On one extreme are those who view the diligent ant as acting within his rights in refusing to aid the cavalier grasshopper, because the grasshopper lazed away the days and months with no concern for the future, oblivious to the likelihood that he would become a burden on others. On the other extreme are those who believe that the ant owes a share of his wealth to the grasshopper, who often is portrayed as representing the artistic side of society as he spends his days singing and dancing to please himself.
Socialistic/progressive governments assert that they have solved this problem, through steep taxes and huge welfare programs that redistribute wealth. That assertion is false. Instead, they’ve lulled the people into believing that they can keep living well today, tomorrow, and the next day by borrowing ever more against the future efforts of their young adults. That is, these governments have restructured society to encourage people to live like grasshoppers, in the tacit belief that their children and grandchildren somehow will become willing and able to live, work, and produce like ants—despite having been reared by grasshoppers to think, act, and hold the expectations of grasshoppers.
This is worse than a fairy tale. It’s a sham. The issue can never really go away, because it stems from human nature and the real-world economic truth that wealth does not simply fall from the sky like manna from heaven.
Sooner or later, the fundamental differences in personal work ethic, as exhibited today by the Germans at one extreme and the Greeks at the other, must drive them apart.
The European Union is a house divided against itself. Its mounting monetary and fiscal problems stem from the reality that its member nations’ peoples never shared core moral values to enable them to form a genuine union. This lack of shared values is surfacing as economic tensions fan the flames of us-versus-them mentality.
What does the future hold for the E.U.? Eventually, either its various member nations’ peoples will bond voluntarily by uniting in their embrace of the moral values that can enable them to achieve higher living standards, or they will break apart—perhaps with Greece’s departure heralding an exodus of Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France.
Of course, there is a third possibility: that the member nations will be kept together against the will of their peoples, as the E.U. devolves toward the top-down totalitarianism which the grandparents of today’s Europeans saw close-up, to their horror, less than a century ago.
As we watch this drama unfold, it’s worth noting that we as Americans have much in common with the European Union and its member nations, including their current problems. Like the E.U., our federal government maintains control over monetary policy, printing as much currency as it chooses. Like the E.U., our federal government exerts significant control over its constituent states, which cannot print money. And like the E.U., our federal government has enabled many of our states to engage in ongoing and reckless overspending a la Greece, while other states have strived to reduce the burdens of government on their peoples and their businesses. Hence, it should come as no great surprise that we are on the verge of experiencing the same problems as the Europeans. Just look at the out-of-control spending and unserviceable debts of Illinois and the territory of Puerto Rico.
Significantly, though, the United States is reaching that point from a different direction—not from a systemic weakness reflecting a lack of common values at the outset, but from the erosion of values commonly shared by prior generations. The us-versus-them mentality now sweeping America—dividing blacks from whites, immigrants from citizens, poorer from richer, blue states from red states, and more—is threatening to split us apart, too, and that threat is intensifying at an alarming rate.
So, as the battles between the grasshoppers and the ants wage on both sides of the pond, leaving the future up in the air, here’s something weighty to ponder. European Union member nations are acknowledged to hold the right to withdraw if they cannot find sufficient common ground with the other member nations. This is a tension-reducing option that America’s states do not possess—a costly lesson from our Civil War. Consequently, unlike Greece, our constituent states cannot escape the effects of our federal government’s actions and policies.
For Europe, the E.U.’s problem is what to do about irresponsible members such as Greece. For America, the problem is what to do about the irresponsible federal government.
We, as dual citizens of our nation and of the states we inhabit, cannot cut and run. We must stand and fight this war, and win it together by seizing the moral high ground for ourselves and our progeny. Europe may never get its act together and rid itself of socialistic/progressive governments and the grasshopper values they promote, but we can. If we do—and if we do it right, by embracing universal morality and bottom-up freedom as the basis for achieving lasting prosperity and happiness—we just might show the way for the Germans and the Greeks to resolve their own differences.